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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Frost’s poem always echoes in my ears near Palm Sunday. Maybe it’s because I think this story presents us with such contrast…two parades…but probably it’s just because I was an English major. I have to get some mileage out of that dang degree for crying out loud.
There is, of course, no mention of two parades in Luke’s text, or in any gospel for that matter. There is just Jesus, riding a colt, or a foal, capturing messianic imagery from Zechariah, with people so passionate about his arrival that they are throwing the only jacket they probably own on the ground in front of him as a sign of respect.
The other parade is one you have to imagine, though we are quite certain from an historical perspective that it was real. In fact, historically speaking, it may be the Jesus parade that is imagined…something that never historically happened but which stands as a mythical tribute to him, satirizing the parade that often marched through the main gates of Jerusalem, the one with troops marching in formation, the apparatus of the Roman war machine with the power of Rome on full display, images on the shields and the banners that claimed Caesar as “son of God”, “savior of the world” and “lord”. Scholars tell us that it marched through those gates every year at Passover, a sign at the height of the Jewish celebration of just who was in charge. Don’t go getting yourself pumped up on religion and wine, Jerusalem. We are Rome. Know your place.
But, Luke imagines, at the lesser gate, where there was no great throng of people, just the few who had followed Jesus in from the surrounding villages outside of Jerusalem. These peasants, of course, they knew about kingdoms, they knew what power looked like, and they knew that in a world full of gods competing for your attention, you know what god to worship by looking to whoever was in charge. For god blesses the righteous, and god supports the winners, right? The losers? Well, god makes them poor. It was the divine equation of the first century, and we’ve made little progress, I’m afraid, in the 20 centuries since.
So when this Jesus, the carpenter’s son who came from Nazareth, when he began to teach them that God’s Kingdom was a reversal – that in God’s Kingdom those who were greatest were the least and those the least the greatest, when he began to remind them of their own prophetic tradition that claimed God on the side of the widows and the orphans, the oppressed and marginalized, they were flabbergasted. Look around Jesus – do you not understand how the world works? What is this “love your neighbor as yourself” stuff? It is quaint, a nice thing to say, but really…have you seen the Roman parade? So they, instead, begin to imagine him as the great, mythical messiah, come to take the throne of Jerusalem, kick out the Romans and rule as a “good” king…like David. Which just goes to show you how capable human beings are of glorifying the past and making idols as a way to escape fear. But Jesus’ parade heralds the arrival of something new…a “hopey-changey” thing that goes far beyond politics or kings and into our hearts.
I preached this sermon, almost the same one you just heard, at my alma mater, Phillips Theological Seminary, on Tuesday at chapel. I was invited by Richard Ward, who is the preaching professor there and a member here. You might recall that he invited you to come last Sunday and then I uninvited you because I thought you’d just hear the same sermon twice. That was my plan. But, after I preached it, I had many students and staff come up to me and tell me how brave it was that I could be that political in the pulpit. Political? Wow. I thought I had really toned it down! I took out some really overt stuff and was super general…at least I thought. But it left me thinking that if politics was all that people got out of it, I had failed.
Sure, we may be in the midst of a crazy election cycle. We may be wrestling with local politics in ways that could dramatically impact our lives. But that’s not what I really think that these parades, or the imagined juxtaposition of Rome and Jesus is all about. No, it is something far more basic that what party you support or what bill you like or don’t like. Yet this is too often precisely how we define ourselves. Think of how many conversations don’t start, how many dinners get disrupted, how much time and energy we dedicate to our tribal politics…and how little it gets us.
It makes me wonder. Are we getting this “two parades” thing out of whack? Are we thinking that Jesus is making a left versus right argument when he is instead trying to provide us with a sense of the basic values of discipleship and to visualize God’s kind of power? Power is an easy thing to criticize or lament until we get a little power and then watch how quickly we switch parades. More and more I think that we really belong somewhere in the middle of Jerusalem, at a vantage point where we can see both parades. That’s closer to our reality, for we may be on Jesus’ side for an hour on Sunday, or when our hackles get raised, but what about the rest of our lives? What about when we’re faced with some resistance? What about when we get some power?We know what happens to these parade attendees, so passionate now that they use their clothing for a “red carpet.” In the week to come they will disappear. They will pretend that they don’t even know this guy.
Just this week, a letter from the Episcopal Church of Bishops called, ‘A Word to the Church’, was so well received by so many, including our own denomination, the United Church of Christ, that is was adopted rather than trying to write their own version. It is a response to the tenor of our politics and the atmosphere it helps create. This is what it says…
On Good Friday the ruling political forces of the day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the weak and the blameless to protect their own status and power. On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right.
In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us.
In this moment, we resemble God’s children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.
We call for prayer for our country that a spirit of reconciliation will prevail and we will not betray our true selves.
Palm Sunday reminds us that Jesus is a choice, and that all versions of Jesus are not equally valid. It also reminds us that parades are a poor place to practice the discipleship of Jesus. That choice is really made somewhere else, when the fear kicks in, or the pressure is on. That’s when we really know just what it is that we are dedicated to. That’s when our choices becomes clear.
20 years ago this congregation made a choice. It wasn’t a universally popular choice, nor embraced by all who attended at that time. Some left. Some just gritted their teeth and made trouble, which is a well-worn church tradition. Others celebrated. We certainly were not the first faith community in Tulsa to make the choice, nor did it come with as high a price for us as others. But it did come as a matter of faith. It came with study and experience, open minds and open hearts, a willingness to change and a capacity to be faithful. It came with a heartfelt dedication to some basic tenets – that we are all created in God’s image and that we should always strive for the highest ideals of our faith, even when that is risky or costly. In other words, it came with the same values that Jesus laid out before his disciples as he walked through Jerusalem, on his way to his impending death. And it is a choice that we continue to make, for being “open and affirming” is not a finish line, it is the beginning of a transformation. It’s not a parade, it is the life after that parade. It’s the work that we do, the stances we take, the relationships that we build and the boundaries we draw that make it possible for us to march in a parade as an act of solidarity. Its a march that I hope we will all make on that first Saturday in June.
But first we have this upcoming week, this holy week, which challenges us to more than a parade, more than mere gratitude for the path of Jesus, even to the cross. After all, we already know how the story ends, so we’re not here for the punch line. We’re here because the story of holy week, with pride and confusion about our loyalties, betrayal and denial, grace and trust and violence, life and death and resurrection…this is our story, too. And we live somewhere in between these parades…all the time. But our true selves know where our power lies, and to what we should be dedicated. Let it be known that we speak out against the demonization of human beings and the betrayal of the common good not because of our politics, but because of our faith. We seek justice not because we’re a bunch of liberals, but because this is what Jesus taught us. We are inclusive because Jesus was inclusive and we seek to live our lives like Jesus.
That’s how we praise him. Hosanna.